April 20, 2005

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China racism

Cecilie Gamst Berg in today's SCMP has an article on racism in China. At first I was going to use it as a talking point on this little discussed side of Chinese life and suggest the more homogenous a population the more likely it is to be racist. I have reproduced the full article below the fold. But, and you know there was a but, there were two parts that stand out...for the wrong reasons.

Firstly, discussing the racist outpourings when Condi Rice recently visited China:

Dr Rice deserves to be attacked for her country's foreign policy and for her own questionable taste in employer. Why would a black woman want to get mixed up with the Republicans at all? But devoting an entire rant to the two things she cannot help - her appearance and her sex - is just scoring easy points.
Wowsers. Talk about slipping in a kidney punch. How does this help an article discussing the racist comments made during her visit. The implication is the author thinks Condi is a fool and betraying her sex and race, but that calling her an "ugly black bitch" is wrong. Ms Berg concludes:
Meanwhile, Dr Rice is a woman of many accomplishments. Let us hope that the ability to read Chinese is not one of them.
Does Ms Berg think the US Embassy and Consular staff in China didn't report these things back to State? Sticks and stones and all of that, but to think that Rice isn't aware of this is naive.

Convenient channel for public fury

The first political discussion I had in Putonghua was in Shanghai, in 1989. I was having lunch with some money changers when some Africans walked past the restaurant. The money changers started making strange animal noises and grimaces. Seeing my puzzled expression, they explained: "They are black devils." In broken Chinese, I asked the head money changer why he did not like blacks. "They are dirty. Their skin is black because they don't wash."
"How about Mike Tyson, do you like him?" I asked. "Oh yes," came the reply. "But he's black." "Yes, but he is American black." The whole table erupted in laughter.

That episode and many similar experiences have led me to believe that racism in China is not so much about skin colour as about what people perceive to be the haves and the have-nots.

I was, therefore, surprised by the vitriolic attacks on US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, posted on the popular mainland website Sina.com, before her state visit to China. Reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, the rants were full of racist terms like "black devil", "black pig" and "black bitch". Another word frequently used was "ugly".

To my knowledge, Colin Powell - who is also of African origin - never got the same treatment. But then, he is a man. Interestingly, most of the racist slurs on the website had to do with Dr Rice being a woman. Indeed, it seemed that users of the website had the biggest problem with her being a woman and "ugly" - her colour was thrown in almost as an afterthought. And, inevitably, because a woman was the target, the word "whore" was trotted out.

Dr Rice deserves to be attacked for her country's foreign policy and for her own questionable taste in employer. Why would a black woman want to get mixed up with the Republicans at all? But devoting an entire rant to the two things she cannot help - her appearance and her sex - is just scoring easy points.

I do not think the Chinese are any more or less racist than other people. I believe the attacks on Dr Rice - supposedly carried out by members of China's "elite" - have everything to do with a repressed population's need to lash out at someone, to shout out some kind of protest, knowing that there will be no repercussions from the government.

In a country where mature political discussion is not only discouraged, but can be downright dangerous, hurling insults at people for reasons that bear no relevance to what they do or stand for has always been a safe way to vent built-up anger.

Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that Beijing secretly encourages this kind of "letting off steam" - as it has been doing with the anti-Japanese protests and violence, and as it did after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

The Chinese government is busy enough keeping an eye on everything that goes on in the country. I do not think, as some have suggested, that officials should interfere with this kind of cyber-nonsense, even if they did find it offensive. Whoever posted the messages will one day look in the mirror and start pondering the word "ugly".

Meanwhile, Dr Rice is a woman of many accomplishments. Let us hope that the ability to read Chinese is not one of them.

Cecilie Gamst Berg is a Hong Kong-based writer

posted by Simon on 04.20.05 at 11:53 AM in the China people category.


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i should point out that there is a lack of proportion about what happened at sina.com. this story was originally noted by the president of the Chinese Independent PEN, Liu Xiaobo. over the course of five days during ms. rice's trip, he counted 70 racist posts on the topic. sina.com has 20 to 30 million visitors per day, and the racist comments are a tiny minority.
i accept that one is too many, but the writer should not leave the impression that the majority of the chinese people are raging racists.for most of them, the race of ms. rice is of no interest, one way or the other.

posted by: eswn on 04.20.05 at 04:07 PM [permalink]

Acctualy it where 70 racist posts out of 800 he read, if you can believe an article in The Guardian:(http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1461208,00.html)

Nearly 9% is not a that small number.

posted by: shulan on 04.23.05 at 12:15 AM [permalink]

I spoke to an American black man in China awhile back and he left this country believing that the majority of the population was racist.

You see, unlike many foreigners, Calvin is fluent in Chinese so he was able to hear and understand the racist comments that were directed at him every day as he walked the streets of China.

He mentioned that life could be difficult at times for a black man in America, but that is almost non-existent compared to China. At least people don't call him a "monkey" to his face when he walks past.

Most of the time he would brush it off and ignore the ignorance, but occasionally he would comment back to the offender in Chinese and once they managed to get over the fact that he could understand what they were saying, they would pretend not to understand his Chinese in hopes of saving whatever little face they could while scurrying away.

I don't know what it's like to be a black man in China, but I do not know what it is like to a Caucasian married to a Chinese in China and it can get pretty ugly at times. When my wife and I walk down the streets holding hands we get some of the nastiest looks you could ever imagine. Once some jerk in a pub actually had the audacity to shake my hand and speak to me in English while telling my wife that she was polluting the Chinese blood by marrying a foreigner.

That was the first time I've actually came close to getting into a physical confrontation with someone in China. Luckily, he was promptly escorted out of the pub by the waiter.

Racism is rampant in China, but hopefully that will change over time as more and more Chinese are exposed to foreigners and able to travel abroad.

Let's hope that Mark Twain was correct.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."

—Mark Twain

posted by: Gordon on 04.23.05 at 10:31 AM [permalink]


As I mentioned on my blog when I posted on this topic, I'm sure their racist comments and small-mindedness do not bother Dr. Rice because she is better educated than most Chinese and she weilds more power in her little black pinky than any man in all of Asia, let alone China.


posted by: Gordon on 04.23.05 at 10:47 AM [permalink]


* wields

posted by: Gordon on 04.23.05 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

This is very interesting! I have been going back and forth regarding traveling to China. I'm a African-American woman. I decided not to add China to my travel itinerary because I'm not passionate about it therefore it wasn't worth the headache. I am going to Hong Kong which should be chocked full of interesting experiences.

posted by: Ms. World on 04.26.05 at 08:48 PM [permalink]

I think Colin Powell doesn't register to some Asians as being of African descent.

posted by: Ms. World on 04.26.05 at 08:57 PM [permalink]

He's not. He's of Jamaican heritage.

posted by: bluejives on 04.27.05 at 05:50 AM [permalink]

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